Welcome to Lesson 7 — Choosing Papers: Real World Examples

Understanding the basic principles of paper selection that I discussed in the previous lesson is a necessary step in your printing journey, but applying them is where real learning takes place. When it comes to paper selection, experience will be your best teacher.

"Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding." (David Bayles, Ted Orland, Art & Fear)

Here are a few examples to help you understand those principles and how I applied them to a few of my prints.

Paper used: Canson Infinity Rag Photographique – matte, ultra-smooth

My first decision is whether I think this image needs high-density blacks or not. Do I want the image to feel loud or soft, aggressive or quiet? How much shadow separation does it need?

This image is about a marsh shrouded in fog and warm light. That's the external description, but my internal experience was about how the light and fog interacted with the marsh to create a feeling of energy and tranquility at the same time—the tension between the foreground and background (passive vs active) is resolved by the soft warm light. That's the feeling I want to convey.

Less density is best since it complements all of these suggestive qualities whereas a high-density paper would diminish them, making the image appear too literal and photographic. I want to preserve, even enhance the painterly look and feel.

Second, I chose an ultra-smooth paper so that the textures in the image are maintained—the fog in the top portion should be as smooth and ephemeral as possible, contrasting with the grasses in the foreground.

Rag Photographique is a smooth matte paper that provides those nuanced qualities yet preserves the darks and details in the foreground without letting them dominate the image.

Paper used: Canson Infinity PrintMaking Rag – matte, subtle but distinct texture

Do I want the image to feel loud or soft, aggressive or quiet? How much shadow detail does it need? What role do the blacks play compositionally?

This image is about trees in fog—again external. From inside this image is about subtlety, suggestion, about connoting my experience with the landscape rather than denoting it.

I want all the trees to look and feel connected to their surroundings—to feel as though they are emerging from the background—alive and present to the moment, and nothing else.

Deep blacks would eliminate this, and make the foreground tree stand out too much, separating it from the background and greatly reducing the conversation between the image and the viewer. The image would be about the tree—not so interesting anymore. My gratitude is what I want to share.

PrintMaKing Rag’s matte finish preserves the softness of the image and prevents the darks from becoming too dominant, which would be the case if I used a high-density paper.

The subtle texture of the paper adds a unifying depth and quality to the print's surface that extends from the bottom to the top. The trees provide strong shapes and detail that isn’t compromised by the paper’s texture.

Paper used: Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique– satin (high Dmax,) ultra-smooth

Do I want the image to feel loud or soft, aggressive or quiet? How much shadow detail does it need? What role do the blacks play compositionally?

This image is about rocks at a coastal landscape with a dramatic sky. But emotionally the landscape felt aggressive, rugged, grounding, even climactic. These are all qualities that the print needs to convey to the viewer unambiguously, yet allow for a conversation that keeps the viewer engaged over time.

Deep blacks play a key role in suggesting the feeling of light, and in strengthening the leading lines and graphic shapes throughout the image. They also provide the maximum dynamic range, which complements the image–from the shadows in the foreground to the highlights in the clouds.

I also want to maintain the textural relationships in the image (high texture in the foreground rocks, no texture in the sky area without clouds) which adds maximum depth front to back, so Baryta’s ultra smooth surface is ideal.

Paper used: Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag– satin (high Dmax), very subtle texture

By now you know the questions… This image is all about the drama of the light—I want it to feel aggressive and dramatic, strong and undeniable. High density is what the print needs for the blacks to appear as dark as possible. This doesn’t add shadow detail (defeating the composition) but rather makes the warm light much more rich and brilliant. The blacks create light, and this image is about the energy of light.

Platine's subtle texture also complements the texture in the foreground rocks without any compromise to depth—the color and light provide the depth.


What’s important to take away here is that these ideas and principles apply to any subject, not just to landscapes. I have tried to describe the qualities and emotions that can apply to any style of photography or subject.

Also, notice that how I described the images externally—what the image is about—was clear and easy to see in the image. The depth lies not in the subjects I photographed, but how I tried to use composition and light to create a mood or feeling. That's where the communicative power of photography is, not in the location or subject matter. The paper selected adds to that.

Another important point is that this is how I applied the principles to my images and what I want to convey, but there is no right or wrong way. There is only your way and your vision, so you need to decide what you want to emphasize in your images.

This is why I don’t recommend the “best” paper for black and white or “best” paper for color. The best paper for your image depends on how you want to interpret that image and what kind of experience you want to create for the viewer holding your print. That to me is the most exciting part of printing your work. It connects you to your vision in a deeper way.